It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.
I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.
In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:
You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:
In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.
Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.
To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.
Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:
I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.
And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.
Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:
Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.
I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.
Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:
“[Y]ou get these little cretins who throw [the candy] 150 mph,” then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital [in October 1998]. Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don’t call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
“I saw hamburgers lying in the street,” said Bill O’Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. “They throw plastic water bottles at them, too.”
Beer cans were added to the onslaught during a game against Wake Forest in 2009. Since the late ‘90s, Naval Academy officials have repeatedly urged the public to stop this habit—“It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services,” according to one statement—but it keeps popping up. Here’s one lame defense from a local fan via Facebook:
“As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn’t ‘throwing candy at them’ to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back,”
Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.
Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:
One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.
My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.
I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.
Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:
As for our SeaChickenHawks: It’s difficult to reconcile that they’ve taken $453k from the military for such events when you consider this little-known but ugly incident between coach Pete Carroll and Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
The reader goes on to quote from this Deadspin account, unrefuted by Carroll or the Seahawks as far as I can tell, about Carroll trying to convince Chiarelli — who had been inside the Pentagon when the 9/11 airplane hit the building, and whom I first met when he was a young officer at West Point 30 years ago — that the whole attack was a hoax. Sample quotes:
Chiarelli—who grew up in Seattle—is a big Seahawks fan. His post-military work concerns traumatic brain injury research, a cause of some significance to the NFL. And both have plenty of experience leading groups of men on grand American stages.
The sit-down between Chiarelli and Carroll started off normally enough. They talked about the team, and then about head trauma. Chiarelli, who commanded the American forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, talked about the brain injuries he had seen there. But Chiarelli's mention of Iraq sent Carroll in another direction: He wanted to know if the September 11 attacks had been planned or faked by the United States government.
In particular, Carroll wanted to know whether the attack on the Pentagon had really happened.
You can read more at the Deadspin account. A further fillip on a culture that is symbolically reverent of “the heroes” but in real terms vastly distant from them.
In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:
Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!
Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.
And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.
The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.
Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.
Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as ChickenhawkPaid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.
A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:
Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games. (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).
I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League. For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.” I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military. [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]
Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve. And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.
In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.
On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:
I often find myself dumbfounded at the superficial "support" thrown to veterans and as a veteran, insulted at the jingoism-driven lack of true oversight over military spending. For whatever it is worth, I felt I ought to lend you my humble two cents.
I am veteran of the Canadian Army living in the U.S. I served in Afghanistan prior to settling in Virginia with my U.S. wife. Another aspect of the “chicken-hawk economy” that I think is worth more public scrutiny is how veterans integrate into the workforce.
Many large U.S. firms have veteran hiring targets and specialized veteran recruiters. Businesses typically view "veterans" as a homogeneous group that is stereotyped as "you must be good following orders," or "repetitive tasks don't faze you," and many others. Some are positive, but most I typically find off-putting and indicative of a society that understands little (nor seems to want to understand) of what service entails.
Every veteran is unique. Some 25 year olds negotiated peace settlements between warring tribes. Some 25 year olds fixed armored vehicles. Some 25 year olds ran Pashto-language radio stations. The work performed by former members of the military should be treated equal to work performed by non-former members of the military by potential employers.
I am confident enough in the work done by veterans overseas that it can (or should) easily compete with those with equivalent civilian world experience. I find that US hiring managers seem to want to avoid the details of my service, in favor of a more superficial treatment of me as a "veteran" who can "obey orders." The accomplishments of veterans are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves because of this "chicken-hawk society" in which those not directly engaged with the armed services pay it lip service but do not want to dive into the grittier details.
Post 9/11 veterans engaged in an unprecedented type of conflict. The nature of counterinsurgency in the information age dictated that major decisions, that in prior generations would have been made by Colonels and Generals, were decentralized to some of the lowest levels. A generation of veterans holding some of the strongest leadership credentials of any generation is being undervalued and stereotyped by the society to which it returns. This is wrong from a business perspective, and an unethical way to treat those who served.
A retired Air Force officer, who still does some contracting work with the Pentagon, writes about the news that the Defense Department was underwriting “salute to the heroes!” pageants at pro sports games:
A couple of thoughts:
1. Don’t be so quick to give some recognition to the Washington sports teams for not receiving money from the Pentagon. [JF: I pointed out that the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, and Redskins were not on the pay-for-celebrating-troops list.] I believe that the fawning to veterans at these settings is underwritten by Defense contractors, rather than the Pentagon itself. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc.
I am truly split at what makes me more sick—DoD underwriting it, or the purveyors of weapon system underwriting it, who help to lobby for using their weapons. Particularly sickening for me at Nats games where we often see so many wounded from Walter Reed there.
2. Another item to make you sick: Watching a Marine at formal parade rest while pampered golfers eye up their putts. [See above.]
I am a retired AF officer, and I get the need for recruitment budgets. But for multi-million (billion) dollar for-profit sports enterprises who benefit so greatly from other forms of DoD support (flyovers, security, sports-loving soldiers, etc) to also take money for this stuff ...
We have lost all connection with the military. [The people cooking up these plans] should be pilloried, but the public really won’t care. Hell, leading presidential candidates can insult prisoners-of-war and their numbers go up.
In this new Thread I will revive a string of reader commentary, plus news updates (F-35, A-10, budgets and strategy, veterans’ welfare, future strategy), on the themes I dealt with in my Chickenhawk Nation article early this year. The article’s official title was “The Tragedy of the American Military.” Early this year, before the introduction of our Notes and Threads, I ran more than 20 installments of reader response to it. You can find a compendium of them here, and eventually I’ll try to migrate them to this page as well.
Let’s begin: There is simply no other place to revive this series than with the new report by Arizona’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, called “Paid Patriotism.” That’s the cover, below. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.
The surprise value of this report, for me, was that neither I, nor Ben Fountain, had been anywhere near cynical enough.
Ben Fountain is the author of the celebrated, widely read, and should-be-read-even-more-widely short novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I discussed in my piece. At face value, Fountain’s book is remarkably cynical. It is about a little group of U.S. troops serving in Iraq, who are brought back to be featured in a “Salute to the Heroes!” at halftime at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving day, and then are shipped right back to the front. All the civilians feel good about their few minutes of congratulating the heroes. Then the civilians get back to real life of making and spending, and they forget about the war, and the troops.
Plenty cynical, right? And I felt cynical for saying that Billy Lynn had captured the spirit of “a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”
What I hadn’t imagined, and what Fountain would presumably have added to his novel to darken its mood if he didn’t think it would strain credulity, is what Senators McCain and Flake document in this report: that the Pentagon has been underwriting many of these seemingly heartfelt “salutes.” Just for one example, the Atlanta Falcons got as much as $300,000 per year for honoring-the-military services like these for the Georgia Army National Guard:
There is more, about a lot of teams in in all the major sports leagues. I encourage you to read and reflect on it. Local-interest note: D.C.-area sports fans usually don’t have much to celebrate. But for whatever reason, only the D.C. United soccer team, among local franchises, was involved in the celebration-for-pay program. Not the baseball Nationals, hockey Capitals, basketball Wizards, or our NFL team.
In Pentagon terms, we’re not talking about a lot of money — a few million dollars, in an organization that spends more than a billion per day. But that money has disproportionate symbolic sting.
So Ben Fountain had not imagined the full reality, and neither had I. The American public is willing to pause at halftime and think respectfully about the one percent of us involved in carrying out our open-ended wars. As long the Pentagon is footing the bill.
Sure, it may be true. But that doesn’t mean it’s productive.
“Your refusal has cost all of us,” President Joe Biden said to unvaccinated people last week, as he announced a new COVID-vaccine mandate for all workers at private companies with more than 100 employees. The vaccinated, he said, are angry and frustrated with the nearly 80 million people who still haven’t received a vaccine, and their patience “is wearing thin.”
He’s not wrong about that. For people who understand that widespread vaccination is our best strategy for beating the pandemic, the 25 percent of Americans who still haven’t received a single shot are a barrier to freedom. Their exasperation is warranted.
But bullying the unvaccinated into getting their shots isn’t going to work in the long run.
What I learned about transcendence from a very boring 100-mile trek
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Last month, a survey by the travel industry found that a majority of Americans changed their vacation plans this summer because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone canceled their vacations entirely; travel spending has been almost as high this summer as it was in the summer of 2019. Some would-be adventurers simply found ways to do the exotic things they’d planned to do overseas in less exotic places. One of my friends, for instance, went bungee jumping in North Carolina instead of Costa Rica.
For my vacation, I did the opposite: I went with my family to a fairly exotic place to do a distinctly unexotic thing. I went to Spain and took a very quiet 100-mile walk.
The United States has allied with Britain and Australia to form a new anti-China grouping.
A new world is beginning to take shape, even if it remains disguised in the clothes of the old.
The United States, Britain, and Australia have announced what is in effect a new “Anglo” military alliance. The basics are these: In 2016, Australia struck a deal with France to buy a fleet of diesel-powered submarines, rejecting an Anglo-American alternative for nuclear-powered vessels. In March this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (or, “that fellow down under,” as Joe Biden referred to him), began talking with Washington about reversing its decision. Then, last night, in a live three-way public announcement, Biden, Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that the Australians would scrap their agreement with France to team up with Britain and the U.S. instead, forming a new “AUKUS” military alliance in the process.
Vanishingly few people have legitimate reasons to avoid COVID-19 vaccination. Some say their doctors told them not to get vaccinated anyway.
In the battle against vaccine hesitancy, many officials have suggested that people talk with their doctor if they have concerns about getting vaccinated. This advice makes a certain amount of sense. Primary-care physicians are typically the doctors patients trust most, and doctors deeply understand the benefits of vaccines. The American Medical Association has claimed, based on a survey it conducted, that 96 percent of doctors are fully vaccinated.
In recent weeks, though, I’ve heard from several people with an interesting excuse for waiting to get vaccinated: They say their doctors told them not to. Most of the people I spoke with requested anonymity so they could share sensitive health information. Most would also not give me their doctors’ names in order to shield the providers from negative consequences. The doctors whose names I did get did not return my calls or declined to comment for this story, leaving it unclear what they really think about vaccine exemptions. Some of the people I spoke with may simply be vaccine-hesitant and trying to blame a doctor for their own choice to delay or forgo getting a vaccine. But because doctors are a large and relatively diverse group of people, with varied training, credentials, and personal politics, it makes sense that some doctors would have incorrect views about vaccination.
A new study suggests that almost half of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have mild or asymptomatic cases.
At least 12,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19 this month, as the country inches through its latest surge in cases. But another worrying statistic is often cited to depict the dangers of this moment: The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States right now is as high as it has been since the beginning of February. It’s even worse in certain places: Some states, including Arkansas and Oregon, recently saw their COVID hospitalizations rise to higher levels than at any prior stage of the pandemic. But how much do those latter figures really tell us?
From the start, COVID hospitalizations have served as a vital metric for tracking the risks posed by the disease. Last winter, this magazine described it as “the most reliable pandemic number,” while Vox quoted the cardiologist Eric Topol as saying that it’s “the best indicator of where we are.” On the one hand, death counts offer finality, but they’re a lagging signal and don’t account for people who suffered from significant illness but survived. Case counts, on the other hand, depend on which and how many people happen to get tested. Presumably, hospitalization numbers provide a more stable and reliable gauge of the pandemic’s true toll, in terms of severe disease. But a new, nationwide study of hospitalization records, released as a preprint today (and not yet formally peer reviewed), suggests that the meaning of this gauge can easily be misinterpreted—and that it has been shifting over time.
The battles over “virginity testing” and “virginity-restoration surgery” reveal the persistence of dangerous pseudoscience.
In the Middle Ages, a royal bride would be inspected before her wedding night to make sure she was a virgo intacta—a virgin with an intact hymen covering the entrance to her vagina. “The Hymen is a membrane not altogether without blood,” wrote the 17th-century court obstetrician Louise Bourgeois. “In the middle it hath a little hole, through which the menses are voided. This at the first time of copulation is broken, which causes some pain, and gushing forth of some quantity of blood; which is an evident sign of virginity.”
In reality, some girls are born without a hymen, while others tear the membrane long before they have sex, most commonly by exercising or, today, by using tampons. Yet the demand for virginity testing—typically, a gynecological exam in which a doctor looks for the presence of a hymen—has proved surprisingly durable. In 1979, the British government performed one on a 35-year-old Indian woman who had traveled to London to get married, in order “to see whether she was, in fact, a bona fide virgin.” (The Guardian later revealed that immigration officials subjected more than 80 women to such tests from 1976 to 1979.) The Egyptian authorities used the pretext of virginity inspections to assault female protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011, and until July of this year the Indonesian military regularly performed such assessments not only on female recruits, but also on the fiancées of its male soldiers.
Will the Black body ever have the opportunity to rest in peace?
The photographs are about the size of a small hand. They’re wrapped in a leatherette case and framed in gold. From the background of one, the image of a Black woman’s body emerges. Her hair is plaited close to her head, and she is naked from the waist up. Her stare seems to penetrate the glass of the frame, peering into the eyes of the viewer. The paper label that accompanies her likeness reads: Delia, country born of African parents, daughter of Renty, Congo. In another frame, her father stands before the camera, his collarbone prominent, and his temples peppered with gray and white hair. The label on his photo says: Renty, Congo, on plantation of B.F. Taylor, Columbia, S.C.
In 1850, when these images were captured, the subjects in the daguerreotypes were considered property. The bodies in the photographs had been shaped by hard labor on the grub plantation, where they’d spent their lives stooped over sandy soil, working approximately 1,200 acres of cotton and 200 of corn. Brought from the fields to a photography studio in Columbia, South Carolina, each person was photographed from different angles, in the hopes of finding photographic evidence of physical differences between the Black enslaved and the white masters who owned them. A daguerreotype took somewhere between three and 15 minutes of exposure time, and the end result was a detailed image imprinted on a small copper-plated sheet, covered with a thin coat of silver.
To celebrities, the red carpet of the Met Gala is like an average person’s front lawn: a place for making bold statements. The event, an annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, is made for flaunting ostentatious couture. The dress code is determined by a theme—this year’s was “American Independence,” in honor of a forthcoming exhibition—that can be interpreted however an attendee prefers. Tickets are $35,000 a pop. And for four hours, the invitees—normally the most relevant cultural figures of the year—get to mug for the camera before heading inside. As a red-carpet co-host, the actor Keke Palmer, declared at the top of last night’s show, “You can never go wrong with a message.”
Grills are more than adornment. They’re about Black agency.
There’s a poem most Black people know, and even if you don’t know it, at one time or another you’ve lived it or seen someone you love live it.
It’s a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar called “We Wear the Mask,” his seminal ode to how Black folks must show one face to the world and another to ourselves. The verse begins, “We wear the mask that grins and lies” and tells a Black American story, about what it feels like to be treated like a problem.
This, too, is a story about that, but it’s also about gold teeth and grills, two words for mostly the same thing: a beauty we chose together, the grin that wears a mask all its own.
Samiah Rahim, 28, a certified diamontologist in New York, has two golds, commissioned from a jeweler she met at a party in 2019. One is a window around her right canine, the other a gap filler between her two front teeth. Front gaps are common in Rahim’s family. She figured the best way to honor the gap was to pour gold into it. Her gap filler did its job—it sits between Rahim’s front teeth in a rectangle of light. Without knowing it, Rahim was continuing a tradition that has existed for nearly 3,000 years.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.
If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.